The Psychology of Stalking
by Colleen Cancio
edited by Kevin P. Allen
For many people, the idea of stalking calls to mind a creepy psychopath lurking in the shadows with a pair of binoculars trained on a beauty queen or Hollywood starlet. But the reality of stalking is much more mundane. The vast majority of stalkers were once romantically or socially involved with their victims. In many cases, the obsessive behavior began before the relationship ended.
Loosely defined, stalking refers to one person's obsessive behavior toward someone else and the fear that it causes. Stalking is rooted in the need to gain control or power over the person being stalked. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it most often involves attempts to make contact with the object of the stalker's obsession. These unwanted communications may be friendly or romantic, though more commonly they're designed to frighten, intimidate, or embarrass their targets. Other common forms of stalking include lying in wait or spying on someone, as well as making unannounced visits to the victim's home. In extreme cases, stalking can be accompanied by breaking and entering, vandalism, acts of violence or even murder.
Historically, stalking has been a difficult crime to prosecute. Stalkers are often adept at intimidating or harassing their victims while keeping a distance. The good news is that over the past two decades, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to address stalking.
In this article we examine the psychology of stalking, including the motivations for such behavior and what victims can do to protect themselves. But first, let's take a quick look at who's stalking whom in the U.S.
There is no clear profile of a stalker, though people with problems such as substance abuse or a personality disorder are more likely to engage in stalking behavior. And although both men and women are known to stalk and be stalked, the vast majority of stalkers are male and the bulk of victims are female.
Generally speaking, the motivations for stalking are different between male and female stalkers, with women more often targeting people within their work environment. According to a study by a team of Australian researchers, women are also more likely to seek an intimate relationship with the object of their obsession, while men's motivations for stalking range from a desire to be intimate to an urge to dominate or inflict harm.
People in certain professions are more vulnerable to being stalked, especially those in which a person has close contact with lonely and disturbed individuals. For example, physicians and psychiatrists are common targets for stalking. This is because the medical professional's role as caregiver can be misinterpreted as romantic interest.
Keep in mind that since most instances of stalking involve current or former intimate partners, there may be warning signs during the relationship. Some examples are extreme jealousy, an urge to dominate one's partner, and an inability to sympathize with his or her point of view. Many people display these behaviors in mild forms. But when it begins to escalate, it may indicate a serious problem. In the next section, we look at when and how low-level stalking can grow to include more serious criminal activity.
Next: Who's stalking whom?